PATERSON, NJ – It has been about a week since Mayor Andre Sayegh tested positive for COVID-19 and quarantined himself in the basement of his family’s home.
Since the diagnosis, Sayegh, who is known for being out and about in Paterson, whether it’s meeting residents, welcoming new businesses, helping at a fire scene or coordinating with colleagues on city business, has been forced to lead New Jersey’s third largest city remotely.
Sayegh’s job is now working to ensure the wheels of government keep turning during one of the most significant public health emergencies in U.S. history – from a distance. “I don’t want to be sidelined. I’m leading the frontline, from my basement,” Sayegh told TAPinto Paterson.
As he plots a course forward from a room less spacious than his City Hall office, Sayegh’s thoughts turned to one of England’s greatest wartime leaders, who directed World War II from a secret network of underground bunkers.
“I’m channeling Winston Churchill,” he joked of his temporary makeshift office-living quarters. Inside of Sayegh’s command station, Sayegh’s days revolve around phone calls, web conferences, emails and texts with his administration regarding the COVID-19 crisis.
They’re also reviewing data, daily reports and coordinating with county, state and federal officials regarding the pandemic, as well as keeping up with the city’s day-to-day regular operations.
Sayegh is one of a few public officials across the country who have announced they are COVID-19 positive. In recent weeks, mayors in Miami, West Hollywood, Aurora, Manchester, and Northampton each reported being infected with the virus.
No stranger to social media, Sayegh broke the news of his diagnosis on Facebook and has provided regular video updates on his experience and information about the public health emergency.
While Sayegh said he didn’t experience the most frequently described symptoms – fever, dry cough, fatigue and shortness of breath – he did notice something unusual. “About two and a half weeks ago, I lost my sense of smell, which I chalked up to allergies,” he said.
At the recommendation of his doctor, Sayegh underwent testing along with city first responders. Four days later, he received the results. “I thought of my family first,” said Sayegh. “My wife tested positive, but my three kids were negative, and they didn’t show any symptoms.”
Sayegh said he can’t pinpoint when or where he could have contracted the virus. “I was doing everything, too. Wearing gloves, sanitizing and practicing social distancing,” he said.
On Wednesday, Sayegh was in good spirits, saying he feels well. He even regained the ability to smell a few days ago, saying he’d never thought he’d be so happy to catch a whiff of his son’s soiled diaper.
With no need to take down time for recovery, Sayegh said he and his administration remain determined to lead Paterson through the COVID-19 pandemic. But his diagnosis – as well as the spread of the virus across New Jersey – has prompted them to rethink how they do the job. And though Sayegh and his staff were practicing social distancing in the weeks leading up to his diagnosis, they have also quarantined themselves, he said.
“I’ve had to readjust my leadership style,” he said.
Like much of the public and private sector, the pandemic has ushered in a new normal for how to conduct business and Sayegh said his staff has been top-notch at adjusting to the change. Following a push by local, state and federal officials, many organizations have opted to keep non-essential employees away from offices in an attempt to promote social distancing to help stem the spread of the virus.
On a daily basis, Sayegh is in touch multiple times a day with his public health officer, business administrator, economic development director, public safety officials, chief data officer, and numerous other members of the administration.
Besides looking at the day-to-day needs of the city, Sayegh and his team have started planning for how to reopen Paterson – once it’s safe. “The analogy I have been using is that it’s like turning on a faucet,” he said. “You do it gingerly and if we see things might erupt again, we turn the faucet back off.”
Of New Jersey’s 68,824 confirmed coronavirus cases, Paterson accounts for 2,172 of the positive reports, as of Tuesday’s numbers.Sixty-one of the state’s 2,805 virus-related fatalities occurred in Paterson.
There is some hope on the horizon, though, Sayegh said.
As part of his numerous daily phone calls and web conferences related to the COVID-19 crisis, one of his check-ins is with Paterson’s Chief Data Officer, Harsha Mallajosyula, who has been tracking the outbreak through a publicly accessible dashboard.
“Originally, he projected by April 15, we’d be at around 8,000 cases. Today, because we believe social distancing is working, we’re at just over 2,000,” Sayegh said. On March 16, Sayegh issued a State of Emergency requiring “non-essential” businesses to close and prohibited local houses of worship to hold gatherings.
The order also includes the closure of bars and nightclubs that do not serve food, go-go bars, libraries, city playgrounds, movie theaters, shopping malls, gyms, barber shops, nail salons, factories, liquor stores and non-urgent medical offices.
Days later Governor Phil Murphy issued a similar order directing residents to stay inside except for necessary travel, banning social gatherings and mandating non-essential businesses to closure until further notice.
“We’re all learning lessons right now – on leadership, personal hygiene and how we interact with one another,” Sayegh said.
There’s also a great amount of sorrow for the lives lost due to coronavirus, Sayegh said, including his uncle John Obeji, who passed away at age 83 after contracting COVID-19.
“We had a tragic loss in our family,” he said. “It’s taught me to not take anything for granted and to cherish my family and friends now more than ever.”